Vaginal cancer is one of the most uncommon malignancies on women’s reproductive systems, just like vulvar cancer. Statistics mention that only 1 out of 1100 women will develop this disease during their lifetime. However, none should overlook this kind of cancers as late intervention means a significant contribution to fatality and long-term chronic conditions.
Vagina, also called the birth canal, connects the uterus with the outer part of female genitals. This article will guide you through essential bite-size information that you have to know about a form of cancer on the vagina. Make sure that you understand the symptoms, risk factors, diagnosis, treatment, and even a survivorship care plan if you or your beloved one gets this disease.
Table of Contents
- 1 Anatomy, Types, and Symptoms
- 2 Causes and Risk Factors
- 3 Preventive Action and Early Detection
- 4 Diagnosis and Staging
- 5 Vaginal Cancer Treatment
- 6 Post Treatment Life
- 7 Life After Vaginal Cancer
Anatomy, Types, and Symptoms
To be clear of the main discussed point, then it’s momentous to start talking about the anatomy in a nutshell. Vagina starts at the cervix and ends at the vulva. It contains many walls with muscles, nerves, lymph vessels, and connective tissues forming together. This formation helps the vagina’s wall to expand and be elastic during intercourse and birth delivery.
Unfortunately, cancer can happen in the vagina, too, no matter how low the chance of a woman to have this. In its early stage or carcinoma in situ, symptoms are almost non-existent, making it pretty arduous for women to be aware. However, as the cancerous cells are multiplying rapidly and grow in time, women can feel the uncomfortable feelings and even tangible differences.
There are two common types of vaginal cancer. The first one is the squamous cells that start in the flat thin cell that lines the vagina. 90% of vaginal cells are squamous cells, while the other is the adenocarcinoma, which begins in the glandular cells. These cells help in producing mucus or lubricating fluid. Experts report that there still are two more variants, melanoma and sarcoma. Yet, these are extremely rare, and there is a lack of study and literacy in this.
Most patients will report unusual pain during sexual activity to the degree that they got horrible bleeding after. As much as this kind be an alarming sign, vaginal cancer does usually hit women by the lump or lesion in the vagina wall, along with itchiness that seems never to go away. If you get struck by one or two of these vaginal cancer symptoms, there are no reasons not to contact your practitioner promptly.
As the cancer is progressing into the advanced stage, patients will experience a certain level of pain when urinating, along with a more frequent urge to urinate. Furthermore, patients may have unusual constipation, back pain, pelvic pain, and even leg swelling due to water retention. If you have these symptoms simultaneously, then you need to have comprehensive testing to figure out what these signs are trying to tell you.
Causes and Risk Factors
There are no single causes for vaginal cancer diagnosis. Contrary to this, many underlying risk factors may contribute to the growth of abnormal cells in the vagina. While some of the risk factors are uncontrollable, you still can address the lifestyle-related risk factors before it gets too late. You can find vaginal cancer risk factors below:
1. Being Older than 70
Data says that more than half of vaginal cancer patients are at the age of 70 or older. It means that you need to be aware of this genetic determinant. The older you are, the higher risk you have.
2. Having exposed by DES
Diethylstilbestrol is a drug to prevent miscarriage and very popular during the old decades, especially from 1941 to 1970. If your mother took DES while you were in her womb, then you may be at a higher risk of developing precancerous vaginal cells.
3. History of HPV Infection
The human papillomavirus is responsible for several female cancer, such as cervical cancer, vulvar cancer, and vaginal cancer. However, you can avoid having the infection by asking for the vaccine shot, wearing condoms during sexual intercourse, and not having multiple partners.
4. Having VAIN
Vaginal Intraepithelial Neoplasia or VAIN is a stage zero of vaginal cancer. It’s not regular enough as a healthy cell, but not invasive enough to be listed as cancer. The early stage of VAIN requires close monitoring and sometimes heals without intervention. However, the advanced VAIN may transform into more aggressive cells that end up as vaginal cancer
5. Being a Smoker
Tobacco contains thousands of carcinogenic substances that will wreak havoc of your health in general. Furthermore, it doubles your chance of getting cancer, almost any kind of it, including vaginal cancer. If you’re a smoker, learn how to stop right away before it gets too late.
Aside from these risk factors, many underlying health issues may increase your chance of getting vaginal cancer. Women with HIV infection and long term irritation in the vaginal area may need to be more aware of it.
Preventive Action and Early Detection
Vaginal cancer prognosis is relatively good especially if it finds early. However, there is no better prevention other than trying hard to avoid all of those risk factors at all costs. Nevertheless, it will be crucial to treat any pre-cancerous lesion. None can avoid getting older, and your mother took DES is definitely out of your control, but there are a lot of things you still can do to reduce your risk.
As it relates to women’s reproductive health, then the more you get regular pelvic exams, the more your gynecologist catches any irregular symptoms, if any. Despite there’s no euphoric campaign on getting vaginal cancer early detection, you can do it by working together with your doctor.
Diagnosis and Staging
You need to undergo several integrative processes to get a tried-and-true diagnosis. The very first step has a physical and pelvic exam. Your gynecologist will try to insert one or two gloved fingers into your vagina while pressing your lower abdomen. This way, the doctor can inspect the size, the shape, and the position of uterus and ovaries.
As part of regular pelvic exams, your doctor may conduct pap smear too and also vaginoscopy when the pap shows abnormality. The later is a process to see the vagina using a binocular-alike instrument. The doctor may take a sample of tissue during the exams and check it under a microscope.
A pathologist will release a report of the exam. Following this, your gynecologist will discuss it with you for the staging. This process involves several imaging procedures to figure out whether the cancer cells have spread to the adjacent tissues, lymph nodes, or other organs.
You may need to have a chest X-ray to see if there’s a suspicious spot on your lungs. Furthermore, you’re possibly to have whether a CT-scan, MRI, or PET-scan. These three imaging tests are a standard protocol to define a cancer staging. It’s mandatory so you can have a vaginal cancer treatment plan that suits well according to your condition and needs.
The stage I vaginal cancer is found in the vaginal walls only. While in the second stage, it has spread to the tissue around. Without correct treatment, it may unnoticeably step up the game into stage III, where the abnormal cells reach the pelvic wall. Stage IV vaginal cancer has two subvariant. Stage IVa is when the cancerous cell travels and lines the bladder, rectum, uterus, ovaries, and cervix. While the stage IVb is the terminal stage when cancer has reached the lung and bone.
Vaginal Cancer Treatment
As you or your beloved ones have all of the reports and vaginal cancer staging on the hand, then the next is to get the best possible treatment. It might require several procedures that will support each other, such as below:
The surgeon may conduct laser surgery for a pre-cancer lesion. However, wide local excision is standard for vaginal cancer. Another option is vaginectomy to remove a part or all of the vagina. For a recurrence, a radical pelvic exenteration performs to rule in a better survival chance. Along with this invasive procedure, a plastic surgeon may help in the reconstructive surgery.
Both external and internal radiation contributes to the success of vaginal cancer treatment. It shrinks the abnormal cells and enhances the effectiveness of surgery and chemo.
Chemo is an adjuvant therapy that helps in lowering the recurrence rate. Your oncologist may prescribe both systemic chemotherapy drugs and topical chemo cream or lotion.
Post Treatment Life
There is more to life when a cancer patient has finished the treatment. Regular visits and annual scans are a new normal and foster the patient into remission. Due to its rarity, a lot of research is still undergoing to improve the relative vaginal cancer survival rate. However, when all of done, more than 65% of women have successfully reached the first five years after diagnosis.
Life After Vaginal Cancer
Vaginal cancer has affected women in a lot of ways. Issues like a financial burden, scan anxiety, sexual intimacy, and even the fear of getting a second cancer are common in this group. Hence, other than a reliable treatment, a patient needs to have the best comprehensive information in hands. Getting connected to a community, counselors, and spiritual teachers may improve the psychological well being as well.
Due to its complicated risk factor, any woman may have a slight chance of developing vaginal cancer during their lifetime. However, early detection does save lives. If you agree, then you may take an opportunity to help in bringing this cancer into the spotlight.